The will to kill

Rigorous training prepares soldiers to pull the trigger, but can they handle the kickback?



The reserve soldier standing in the shade of a massive green truck was in his early 50s, but he was built like a powder keg: shorter than average, with a pair of tree trunk arms hanging heavily at his sides. He said he had anger issues, and the scowl and squint lines etched into his skin testified to that fact, like he’d made a face that stuck that way. His uniform was identical to all the others that could be seen among the B Company troops of the 340th Brigade Support Battalion who were spending their Saturday at a California National Guard warehouse in Atascadero.

WARZONE GURU :  With “more degrees than a rectal thermometer,” Chaplain Timothy Meier combines neural chemistry, psychology, and spirituality to teach soldiers how to remain emotionally resilient on the battlefield. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • WARZONE GURU : With “more degrees than a rectal thermometer,” Chaplain Timothy Meier combines neural chemistry, psychology, and spirituality to teach soldiers how to remain emotionally resilient on the battlefield.

This particular soldier had worn the camouflage fatigues since 1979, but hadn’t seen actual combat until recently, when he deployed twice to Iraq for separate year-long stints as a convoy commander. He came back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more commonly dubbed by the familiar acronym PTSD.

He didn’t really want to discuss his experiences with a reporter, but he agreed to speak as long as he could remain anonymous.

I asked if he felt guilty about anything he did overseas.

“We supposedly killed a little kid,” he said.

Before the gravity of the words could set in, he quickly described the chaos of an ambush, the sudden confusion, and how a soldier has to do whatever it takes to survive and keep his buddies safe. He said they were driving when they got hit, so they returned fire from the windows of their speeding vehicle, shooting in the general direction of the enemy. It wasn’t an ideal situation, and it couldn’t be helped if bystanders were caught in the crossfire.

He was eager to change the subject. The hardboiled veteran talked about feelings of uncertainty on the battlefield, hyper-vigilance, and the way an improvised explosive device, or IED, could be hidden anywhere along a 10-mile stretch of road between towns in the desert. He discussed how the fear of crowds and loud noises followed him back to the states. He admitted to having anger issues and losing his wife the first time he came back from Iraq. Basically, he was willing to talk about any feelings he had during and after combat, except those associated with killing and the young life he and his company had cut short.

This soldier isn’t the only one who has a hard time talking about killing. It’s a touchy subject throughout the military, because, for the most part, young men and women sign up to test their bravery, serve their country, and hopefully become heroes. They seldom want to be seen as killers, even if the main purpose of the army they voluntarily joined is to dole out deadly force.

In many soldiers, a clash occurs between the romanticized notion of service and the grim realities of duty, and that internal battle can leave scars as debilitating as any flesh wound.


Drilling through the resistance

“Groups can provide a diffusion of responsibility that will enable individuals in mobs and soldiers in military units to commit acts they never dream of doing as individuals, acts such as lynching someone because of the color of their skin or shooting someone because of the color of their uniform.”

—Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing


In the unforgiving desert, a rattlesnake will strike anything that threatens it, pumping its attacker full of poisonous venom without a moment’s hesitation. That is, unless the attacker happens to be another rattlesnake. Then, the two will wrestle until one proves itself superior, and both will slither away alive.

I SPY… :  As an intelligence officer, Lt. Alisha Bissam will deploy soon to track the movements and methods of potential rabble rousers in Kosovo. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • I SPY… : As an intelligence officer, Lt. Alisha Bissam will deploy soon to track the movements and methods of potential rabble rousers in Kosovo.

In his book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former army Ranger and psychology professor at West Point, points to the animal world’s extreme rarity of deadly violence between members of the same species to draw a parallel with man. Although we’re clearly better at overcoming it, Grossman believes humans harbor the same instinct.

He claims that the classic response model of “fight or flight” is incomplete and that humans are also prone to “posture or submit.” He cites several studies of the Civil War and World War II that found kill rates to be much lower than what the soldiers and their weapons should have been capable of producing. Historian Samuel Marshall found that just 15 to 20 percent of World War II soldiers actually shot to kill. Most aimed high in an effort to scare the enemy away.

In the years since Marshall first published his findings, Grossman says modern armies have changed their training tactics. The results were a 55 percent firing rate in the Korean War, and 90 to 95 percent of America’s Vietnam veterans aiming to kill.

According to Grossman, it only takes a few key elements to enable a young soldier to kill: a strong group identity, respect for authority, distance from the enemy, and operant conditioning similar to that of Pavlov’s dog.

All four conditions are firmly in place at Camp Roberts, a 42,000-acre California National Guard training facility just north of Paso Robles. First Lt. William Martin, a public information officer, led the tour.

Reserve soldiers typically train one weekend a month and live the rest of their lives as civilians, but after 10 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, the army is stretched thin. It doesn’t take long for reserve units to get their “alert order” for deployment, which earns Guard members a five-week stay at Camp Roberts before heading to the battle zone in Kandahar. At Camp Roberts, members of the unit will eat, sleep, and train together for 24 hours a day, under the supervision of Capt. Michael Magnuson. It’s his job to ensure that every soldier completes the Task Force Warrior program, which is a lot like a syllabus, except with hands-on courses for tank driving and lobbing hand grenades.

“Teamwork is huge,” Magnuson said. “There’s a positive peer pressure like in sports, but it’s much more intense. These guys spend months together.”

Lt. Alisha Bassim was at Camp Roberts, preparing to deploy for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. She said the Guard gives her a sense of community and camaraderie that can’t be rivaled anywhere else.

“I love my job, as sick as that sounds,” Bassim said. “If anything were to occur, I know [my unit would] be right there with me.”

That group bond drives the modern American military. Ever since the major backlash against Vietnam and public disapproval of the Iraq war, politics has played a limited role in motivation among the troops.

“We’re not naïve,” Martin said. “We know wars aren’t always waged for the best reasons, so we focus on taking care of one another.”

Bassim said that the group identity is established the moment a soldier gets off the bus for basic training. Drill sergeants are no longer allowed to physically strike recruits, but they’re able to lay down the law nonetheless. They yell a lot, Bassim said, and new recruits simply can’t do anything right. Even when they perform their duties perfectly, they’re wrong for letting a fellow soldier mess up. No one is right until everyone acts in unison, following the orders exactly as they’re given. Even going above and beyond the scope of the work is punishable if no higher up told the recruit to do anything extra.

“You know you’re in their world,” Bassim said. “It drives the individuality right out of you.”

SIMULATED SITUATION :  A group of recruits practices methods for securing an improvised explosive device. By repeatedly drilling life-like scenarios, soldiers learn to react quickly and decisively to the real thing. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SIMULATED SITUATION : A group of recruits practices methods for securing an improvised explosive device. By repeatedly drilling life-like scenarios, soldiers learn to react quickly and decisively to the real thing.

The whole process accomplishes several things simultaneously that make it easier for a soldier to kill another human being, according to Grossman. The group gives him or her something to protect, while establishing peer pressure in support of the kill. The individual directly responsible for the action can diffuse any guilt throughout the entire group, leaving him or her with a fairly clear conscience, much clearer than if he or she had acted alone.

The hierarchal structure of the group, with clearly defined leaders calling the shots, adds another layer of distance between the killer and the victim.

“You’ve got to have total respect for authority so that you can act without thinking,” said Everett Brooks, a former serviceman who currently serves as the advisor for the Cal Poly Veterans Club.

That sentiment, though, is only partially true. While it’s often necessary for soldiers to act on orders quickly to keep themselves alive, it’s illegal for them to follow unlawful orders. A soldier could get court-marshaled and sentenced to execution if he or she slays an unarmed combatant or an innocent civilian, whether acting on orders or not.

Still, an order from a higher ranking officer can legitimize a kill, allowing the person who pulled the trigger to justify the action. With that in mind, new recruits are drilled on following orders and recognizing the chain of command in everything they do.

In one training exercise I observed, a unit was practicing the methods they’d use to secure an urban area after spotting an object that could be an IED. Those tactics were clearly new to the soldiers, and there was a lot of confusion. Instead of yelling at the group, the trainer yelled at the unit’s company commander. Everyone heard what the trainer said, but no one reacted until the company commander repeated the same order. In the battlefield, they would need to heed his calls, and that respect was painstakingly instilled stateside.

Groups and officers have been easing the emotional strain of killing for ages, but modern weaponry makes it physically and mentally easier to deliver death than ever before.

Aside from the obvious fact that firing a long-range ballistic improves safety for the soldier pressing the launch button, the physical distance from the kill zone provides a psychological buffer. Grossman explains the idea like this: A man stalking through a village burning families face-to-face with a blow torch is a monster, but a man dropping a bomb on the same village from hundreds of feet in the air is just doing his duty; the difference is that the second man doesn’t have to hear anyone scream.

According to Grossman, that same principal is played out in night vision goggles and sniper scopes. That mechanical separation makes the victims seem less real, more expendable. The soldiers at Camp Roberts get used to gunning down pixilated insurgents in a Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer (RVTT), which consists of a fully armed Humvee housed in a large, hydraulic trailer. The interior walls are covered in green screen, and overhead projectors can create a fully realized, three dimensional warzone.

“The weapons are real, but the firing range is kind of like a big video game,” said Suzy Thomas, the media spokesperson for Camp Roberts. “The room goes dark, and it’s like you’re there.”

No one was using the simulator when I visited, but clips of soldiers using the RVTT are readily available online. They fire blanks at enemies on the screen as the Humvee bounces down dirt roads. The soldiers describe it as “a lot of fun.”

Everyone I talked to said there’s no way to realistically simulate the conditions of combat, but the trainers at Camp Roberts definitely try. The landscape is similar to a Mid Eastern desert, so barren and hot that several soldiers were evacuated from the facility with heat stroke the day after I visited. In addition to the RVTT, the sprawling compound includes a Humvee driving course with a rollover simulation, paratrooper drop zones, and a simulated city square with buildings to raid.

Some windows are equipped with imitation machine guns. They light up and make noise, but no bullets come out. Trainers rig the courses with baby powder bombs that whistle like incoming artillery before detonating. Targets shaped like human silhouettes dot the courses. Many fall down when hit, giving the shooter an immediate visual reward for success. Inside the buildings, life-sized posters of armed thugs wait to be shot in their balloon heads. Again, a nice pop gives the soldier immediate feedback and satisfaction for a job well done.

“When you’re practicing, you shoot at silhouettes. You can’t worry about the humanistic part of it,” Brooks said. “Then, when soldiers are blasting up a whole block, those faces turn to silhouettes.”

Generals want platoons stocked full of soldiers who can effectively carry out kill orders without letting emotions get in the way. It gives American forces a huge tactical advantage. But overriding that innate emotional resistance can wreak havoc on the man who finds himself back home, sitting among strangers who call themselves family, people who will never understand the thrill of taking out an enemy, or the horror of witnessing one’s handiwork.


Morally wounded

“Looking another human being in the eye, making an individual decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your direct action combine to form the single most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrence of war.”

—Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing


The effects of significant emotional trauma are like the scars from a knife repeatedly stabbing the brain’s memory center. After each blow, the blade is dragged out in a different direction, leaving a network of neural pathways that lead right back to the awful memory. Every time it’s relived, a new pathway is made.

HELP OFFERED:  Lt. Dustin Harris is one of California National Guard’s three full-time behavioral health officers. His office provides up to 12 free counseling sessions for every issue affecting soldiers and their families. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • HELP OFFERED: Lt. Dustin Harris is one of California National Guard’s three full-time behavioral health officers. His office provides up to 12 free counseling sessions for every issue affecting soldiers and their families.

In this way, something as benign as a hot day can remind veterans of combat horrors experienced in the desert. So can loud noises or bumpy roads. With thousands of miles and several years separating the soldier from the battlefield, any spark of fear can reignite the intense emotions of war, as does every fleeting moment of confusion, grief, or guilt.

When it came time for Congress to renew its funding for military operations in 2008, it demanded that the Secretary of Defense perform a “preliminary assessment of the readjustment needs of veterans, service members, and their families.” The findings were published in 2010, and they weren’t very good.

The report found that a third of all deployed service members return home with mental health needs relating to PTSD, major depression, or traumatic brain injury. Historically, the suicide rate was lower in the military than in civilian populations, but by 2005, veterans were killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians. Since 2009, suicide has caused more veteran casualties than actual combat, according to one Camp Roberts official.

Dr. David Foy, a research professor at Pepperdine University, places some of the blame on the moral ambiguity in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s difficult to distinguish between enemies and civilians, and there are no clearly marked battlefields. Civilian casualties are common, and the soldiers who cause them don’t walk away unscathed.

“It’s a spiritual injury,” Foy said. “The individual has done things that alienate them from the person they used to be. They experience symptoms of profound sorrow over crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed.”

His team of researchers calls it “moral injury,” and it’s a fairly new, under-researched concept in the realm of psychology. To mitigate its effects on veterans, Foy suggested that the military train its officers to recognize the issue and help subordinates understand that they aren’t individually responsible for any accidental deaths, that the group as a whole and the situation itself caused the tragedy.

“You don’t want to train people out of their moral compass,” Foy said. “The real responsibility lies with politicians who place a relatively small percent of our population in terrible situations like this.”

At Camp Roberts, Chaplain Timothy Meier is the go-to guy for spiritual advice and moral dilemmas, and every soldier who comes through Camp Roberts has to hear his briefing on “resiliency,” a class that strives to give soldiers tools and techniques to process stress and trauma on the battlefield without becoming obsessed. Soldiers also attend briefings on suicide prevention and how to follow the Geneva Convention’s rules of engagement, protocol that strives to minimize deadly force and civilian casualties.

“Toxic grief can kill people—and not just the people suffering with it,” Meier said.

Meier is a Catholic priest, but he’s also a scientist. He explained that in times of crisis, the brain’s neo cortex (which handles such higher functions as rational thought, language, and decision making) gives up control. The mid brain takes over, issuing quick commands for action and emotionally fueled adrenaline surges. If the trauma is significant enough in scope or duration, the mid brain has trouble relinquishing control to the neo cortex.

The result is PTSD, and soldiers who suffer from it exhibit symptoms of aggression, hypertension, and insomnia. They have frequent nightmares and flashbacks and have trouble connecting with family and friends. They live alone in their heads, perpetually reliving the worst experience of their lives.

Meier said PTSD can be treated by helping soldiers access the traumatic memories in ways that allow them to keep the proper perspective and not trigger any intense emotions. Having them close their eyes and talk about it doesn’t really work. Meier encourages soldiers to re-enact the event with toys. Then, he can address any faulty thinking and misconceptions that lead to stress. For instance, religious soldiers with guilty consciences can take solace in Meier’s explanation that the sixth commandment was mistranslated from Hebrew to English. It should read “though shalt not murder.” God understands that killing can be necessary and just, Meier said.

Meier hopes that by helping soldiers understand the physical effects of the wound, he can help break down the stigma soldiers have against seeking treatment for emotional suffering. For many, being a soldier means being tough, and it’s seen as weak to complain of depression and fear when other soldiers have lost limbs.

“‘Suck it up’ only works in an immediate crisis,” Meier said. “As a long-term strategy, it’s the wrong way to go.”

County officials estimate that there are 25,000 veterans living in San Luis Obispo, and these local vets have an abundance of treatment options. Resources are plentiful; the problem is convincing veterans to use them.

Patti Tackett is the Veterans Outreach Coordinator for San Luis Obispo County. She told New Times that veterans are very reluctant to talk to psychologists in a clinical setting, so she strives to offer fun events like barbecues and camping trips that provide healthy social opportunities and improve quality of life.

“It’s very healthy for veterans to be around each other, to see that other people are functioning and they can as well,” Tackett said.

In May, the Department of Veterans Affairs opened a Vets Center in San Luis Obispo, one of only 300 nationwide. Mike Young is a lead counselor there, and he’s seen firsthand the effects guilt can produce in veterans.

“That first time tends to be more memorable or disturbing,” Young said.

He said he's talked to several soldiers who became physically ill after their first kills. Many experienced reoccurring nightmares, and some became addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat. Upon returning home, they’d drive recklessly and start fights to try to recapture the feelings of battle.

Basically, Young said, everyone reacts differently to war. The Vet Center strives to offer treatment programs catered to the individual, in an environment that’s as welcoming and as impersonal as possible. Again, the Vet Center has to beware of the soldiers' stigma against therapy and walk a fine line, offering counseling to veterans who need it without scaring them away by being too pushy or clinical.

The entire California National Guard has just three full-time behavioral health officers. From his office at Camp Roberts, Lt. Dustin Harris oversees programs that service all of Central California. He said the culture is changing, that there's been a push from the top for officers to tell their troops it’s OK to seek treatment. To that end, the Department of Veteran Affairs announced June 11 that it will be hiring 1,600 more counselors in the coming year.

 “You’re told to be a tough, hardboiled soldier,” Harris said. “Part of that is being courageous enough to ask for help."

At the Guard warehouse in Atascadero, there’s evidence that the stigma is diminishing. Trying to be sensitive, I quietly asked the sergeant in charge if he knew of anyone with PTSD who might speak for the article. He proceeded to stomp in and out of various rooms, yelling plenty loud for everyone to hear.

"Hey! You’ve seen some combat, right? You got PTSD? What about [name removed]? He’s got it. Where’s he at?” ∆

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at [email protected].


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